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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jan 8 1997
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New Year's Eve day finds the sweeping concrete stairs of Grace Cathedral scattered with an odd assortment of people: gray-haired couples bundled against the chill, small children playing with a neon-yellow rubber ball, and a 23-year-old woman eating a brown-bag lunch.

"I didn't think that I should eat inside the church," Willow says around a mouthful of multigrain bread and feta cheese. "Even though everyone inside seems really mellow, I thought it might be rude."

A helpful trail of lavender paper signs, each reading "Symphony of Souls," leads from the cathedral's modern underground parking garage, down a long linoleum hallway, past several large conference rooms, up a Gothic stone staircase, and into the main hall of the church. There, the pale winter sun makes its presence known through dozens of ornate stained-glass windows, which bathe the upper reaches of the ceiling in rich azure and violet light. Down below, the pews' deep, reddish wood hues endow the room with a sense of warmth and comfort despite a gray sea of polished concrete that serves as the church floor.

Grace Cathedral is a vast, awe-inspiring structure, the kind that can reduce people to timid whispering and pious foot-shuffling even if they have never entertained a religious thought in their lives. Today marks the final hours of "Symphony of Souls," a 24-hour musical celebration of the coming new year. The cathedral is bustling with activity. While Rhiannon, Joey Blake, and Dave Worm fill the hall with improvised chanting, people wander in off the street to take a look around. Some treat the experience like a museum tour, examining the various statues or reading about stained-glass restoration. Others slide into the pews and bow their heads in prayer. Still others come in to walk the Labyrinth, a large tapestry based on long-forgotten mystic traditions that was installed on the cathedral floor by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress in 1990. It is a powerful image, this labyrinth, one which has existed in one form or another in almost every religion throughout the world. This particular version was drawn from Celtic tradition (based on a labyrinth laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral around 1220), but Hindus, Gnostics, and Buddhists have all walked through labyrinths in search of spiritual clarity.

"I haven't walked it yet," says Patrick Fahey, "but I'm going to ... in a while." Fahey stands near the Labyrinth entrance on a large stone cistern that holds holy water. He lets his fingers dangle in the pool before dabbing his forehead. He smiles and absent-mindedly rubs his shoeless feet together, an attempt to assuage an itch somewhere under his thick white sweat socks. It is a gesture of ease. On the floor, a half-dozen people are making their way through the Labyrinth. Two 10-year-old girls skip to the center, where they sit down with an older gentleman and meditate; a sunbaked woman with white hair dances around the twining circle; a bald woman in loose clothing keeps her eyes closed and steps slowly, feeling her way through the maze; others pass her by, walking at a normal pace.

"There are no dead ends," says Fahey, explaining the haphazard way some people approach the Labyrinth. "I came here last year at this time, but for some reason I didn't feel like walking. Today ...." Fahey steps away from the holy water, through a ring of candles and a larger ring of shoes, umbrellas, and coats, and into the first stage of the Labyrinth: Purgation, the quieting of the mind. His gait is casual, but it is evident in the lines of his face that there is deep concentration involved. After some time he reaches the center of the labyrinth. This is the second stage: Illumination, a place of meditation and prayer. Here Fahey's face seems less tense. He sits.

The singers at the front of the church explode into ecstatic song. Heads pop up among the pews as folks who had dozed off over the course of the night begin to stir. They smile, rub their eyes, and start clapping along with the singers. One man mentions that the Tibetan bell players had lulled him into a beautiful sleep around 4:30 this morning and that the "kneeling pads make wonderful pillows." A group of young people who had camped out overnight in the church decide to add their own sonic offering to the New Year, which blends into Rhiannon's song. In the Nativity Chapel, a nearby alcove that is drenched in golden candlelight, several people sit in deep prayer. One by one they are met by a priest for the laying on of hands. Slow, individual prayers are exchanged and each person leaving the chapel appears deeply moved by the experience.

"I've never done anything like that," says a middle-aged woman with no qualms about the tears welling in her eyes. She trails off and walks slowly to the front of the house, where she begins to sway slightly to the music.

"Everyone is searching for something to touch them," says Rev. Artress. "New Year's Eve is a very empty holiday for a lot of people, but they don't know how to remedy it. They go out, they get drunk. That's no way to start a new year. This is the only time of year that the church is open 24 hours. People can come and go as they like. Most of them come back." She looks around the church as her long cloak ripples in a draft from the front door. "This is unstructured. It's free-form and improvisational. People yearn not to feel boxed in by traditions they don't understand." It makes sense as three laughing children spin through the Labyrinth, two adults exchange New Year's hugs, and one little old lady in a corner pew closes her eyes, crosses herself, and falls into deep prayer.

"If this doesn't work out," says Fahey, "I could still go out and get drunk." Perhaps Fahey did not reach the third and final stage of the Labyrinth journey: Union, where you find what your soul is searching for. Or maybe he did.

By Silke Tudor

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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